­­How do you prototype Virtual Reality apps?

We work with a variety of VR HUDs at Marxent, including Oculus, GearVR, Cardboard and more. Inevitably, there are times when there aren’t enough devices to go around the office. Often I find myself looking wistfully at my co-workers while they are testing out their latest builds, wishing that I could share their [clearly awesome] experience.

Recently, I decided to take the cardboard plunge so that I would always have my own VR HUD and would never feel left out again.With a budget of 40 bucks, I went seeking one the best possible Google Cardboard HUD that I could find. After much deliberation, I landed on the KnoxLabs “Knox Next”. Within minutes of its arrival, my 13-year-old daughter was assembling my first VR headset.

Did it work as well as an Oculus Rift? Nope. Was it as slick and amazing as a Microsoft HoloLens? Umm, no. But did it convey the feeling and intention of a 3-D experience? Absolutely. Why did I invest in my own Cardboard? Because I’m a fan of rapid prototyping and I want to be able to participate even if we don’t have enough HUDs to go around.

Rapid prototyping is in our DNA

In Virtual Reality application development, as in much of life, there is a process of discovery.  Part of the thrill of working on new and innovative technologies is the need to be constantly learning and ideating as we uncover and work through requirements, client specifications and many other unknowns. We need to try ideas out quickly and with little complexity, so that we can figure out if we’re on the right path. How do we do this? By creating prototypes.

What is prototyping? 

Prototypes come in a lot of different formats. They may be quickly-built apps that allow us to rapidly test solutions to the problems we are trying to solve.Prototyping can also be created on paper (or even a whiteboard). In fact, a prototype can take the form of whatever helps you visualize and communicate problems and solutions.

Top 3 reasons we love rapid prototyping 

Prototyping gives us the opportunity to test ideas with customers, to work with project engineers, and to validate features against the expectations of clients. We create and present these rough-and-ready coded “mock-ups” of a product to ensure that we’re on the right track.  Here are the top 3 reasons that we love prototyping as much as we love Graeter’s Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip ice cream.

1. Rapid prototyping helps us to communicate with clients

We’re often asked, “Why in the world would you want to build something over and over again? Why not just build the whole app and present the final product? If customers don’t like it, why can’t you just start over?” Virtual Reality is a new field and there are a lot of problems yet to be solved. Rapid prototyping for Virtual Reality apps helps us to communicate with clients by putting working features into their hands — or walking them through how individual features will work in paper prototyping for consideration and testing. While some concepts can be challenging to communicate without a functioning version of the program, you’ll be surprised at the amount of feedback inspired by a simple paper prototype.

2. Prototypes save time

Prototyping allows a project team to break big problems down into small chunks.  We can then focus on solving individual problems quickly instead of getting mired in the larger challenges or details of a project.  One of the great things about prototyping is it that you can get it wrong (and maybe wrong again) but, at the end of the day, still deliver a sensational product. Why? Because a prototype is relatively inexpensive and super fast to create compared to what it costs to build a complex software solution. Clients don’t always understand the value until they see the prototype. Some have the idea that measuring twice and cutting once is not a productive use of time. However, our experience is that once they see a customer reaction to a lightweight model they are 100 percent in.

3. Prototyping builds bridges

Prototyping can serve to build bridges of agreement and buy-in between contributors and clients. Whether on paper, in a full-color mockup or in a proof-of-concept app environment, prototyping allows teams to see their ideas in action and to adjust them in order to build the best possible solution. The output of a prototype — money saved, improved understanding, stakeholder buy-in — is worth the few hours that a designer and developer use to build a prototype.

How to start prototyping

  1. Box in your time. If you’ve ever worked on a proof-of-concept project, then you already have a good idea of what prototyping entails. A proof of concept involves a “time-boxed” commitment from design and development teams to build and deliver something that a business or organization stakeholders can wrap their heads around. It is a small version of a program used to better understand a larger problem.
  2. Try paper first. Prototypes can be built in a number of ways depending on what problems need to be addressed. Paper prototypes, HTML prototypes, graphic comps/mock-ups, and lightweight web applications are all examples of prototypes that can help communicate a design or technical challenge. Be creative and use the tools that work for you. I’ve even seen people re-create an online app experience using Excel.
  3. Present your prototype. The best way to understand how prototyping will work for your VR project or any other software development project is to present it to the functional team and client. Over time, you’ll get a sense of what prototyping methods are most effective for your particular project.

The next time you’re trying to overcome a challenging obstacle in your project, consider a prototype approach to break down the work into small pieces tackle it one bite at a time. You may be surprised at how much helpful feedback you receive.